Although the state football playoffs are still two weeks away, Friday (Oct. 26) night's matchup between Hood River Valley and Gresham had all the makings of a playoff classic.
HRV and its vaunted rushing attack in one corner; Gresham and its big-play offense on the other. And neither team disappointed, each playing as though it had its back against the ropes.
But the story in this game was Gresham's ability to hold onto a big 23-point lead it built early in the second half, and squeak out a win by the narrowest of margins, 42-39.
The win put the Gophers in the playoffs, and put HRV's postseason hopes severely in doubt. Now the Eagles must win their final game Friday night against Reynolds, and hope that Central Catholic loses to Centennial to qualify as the MHC fourth seed.
HRV coach Mitch Sanders knew how important this game was coming in, and despite a few lapses early in both halves, the Eagles players were up to the task.
"There were some things we wished we could have done differently, but Gresham is a good football team and they took advantage of some key mistakes," he said.
"We've been struggling with our pass defense the past few games, and we gave up some big completions that led to three easy scores in the first half. Our pass rush was limited and we often let guys run free in the secondary."
The stat line indicated just how well the HRV offense played Friday against a fast, physical Gopher defense. The Eagles gained 338 yards on the ground on just 45 attempts (7.5 yards per carry) and completed six of 14 pass attempts for 96 yards.
Leading the Eagles on the ground was the old warrior Wes Martens, who rambled for 166 yards and four touchdowns in his first game back since injuring his ankle against David Douglas on Oct. 5.
David Fox also had a big day in the backfield, carrying just five times for 104 yards and two TDs -- one, a 52-yard run up the gut in the second quarter to close the gap to 21-19.
"Our offense was close to clicking on all cylinders," Sanders said. "Jarrod (Fogle) was asked to do a lot of new things and pass the ball more, and I thought he played very well with an empty backfield.
"I envision that play as one we'll use more in the future. Kind of like an extra bullet in our offense."
The Eagles' receivers also did a good job of hanging on to the football -- something that has plagued the passing game in other games this season.
Jacobe Krizman caught two passes for 35 yards, Justin Jones had two catches for 24 yards, and Isidro Bello and James Maher each had one for 18 and 19 yards, respectively.
Other rushers for the Eagles were Fogle, who carried three times for 26 yards; Maher, eight carries for 29 yards; Krizman, four carries for six yards; Bello, six carries for five yards, and Nathan Nash two carries for two yards.
Unfortunately for the Eagles' high-powered rushing attack, when the game was on the line, the Gopher defense stepped up their game to squash a late Hood River rally.
After giving up two big scoring plays to Gresham running back Casey Baldwin early in the second half, the Eagles' offense caught fire.
With about four minutes left in the third quarter, Fox had another huge gain to put HRV into scoring position at the Gresham 28 yard line. Then after some short gains, Martens scored his third TD of the night on a three-yard scramble.
The defense came alive late in the third to force Gresham to punt, and set up a big 40-yard return by Krizman down to the Gresham 34. Fox capped the drive when he barrelled around the right side for a 16-yard score to put the Eagles within 10 at 42-32.
On the next possession, Nash, Bello and Ryan Goe each made big stops and forced another Gresham punt, this one to midfield. Then on second down, Martens bounced off a herd of would-be tacklers and broke free for a 48-yard score, which put the Eagles within three at 42-39 with 8:30 to play.
The Eagles D continued to stand tall and forced Gresham into making rash decisions late in the fourth quarter, which set up one final drive for all the marbles.
That was about the time when Gresham's defense really got down to business, and forced HRV to go for it on 4th and 8 to salvage the drive. But the Eagles turned the ball over on downs and all the Gophers had left to do was run out the clock.
HRV did get the ball back with under a minute, but was unable to move the ball on its two plays.
Next up for the Eagles is Reynolds -- a team very much like Hood River in style and composition. They also have an identical 3-5 record, but have lost more conference games than HRV, and are ineligible for postseason play.